9 December 2003
An essay I wrote last week on events in Samarra brought a swift response from a journalist who works for the Independent, accusing me of distorting the Independent’s reportage.
In a parallel universe, unknown to me, the essay had been republished on the Medialens Website. The Independent’s reporter mistakenly thought the article originated with Medialens and sent the response he’d sent to me to Medialens. A debate ensued in the columns of Medialens (that I had no knowledge of) until yesterday (08/12/03).
In the meantime, I had entered into an exchange of letters (in private) with the journalist in question over whether or not my article had distorted and misrepresented the Independent’s coverage of the events that took place in Samarra. Of course, by the end of the week, it was clear that the US version of events was a complete fabrication, not only of the number of deaths but who died and even where they died.
The essence of the exchange revolved around the question of how the media covers the ‘news’. During the course of the week, the Independent carried a number of stories starting with Monday December 1, when the Independent’s front page story was headed:
“November: the cruellest month
• Bloodiest four weeks in Iraq leaves 105 troops dead
• US claims 46 Iraqis died in latest ambush attempts
• Attacks on non-military workers seen as tactic change”
The body of the story concerned ‘coalition’ casualties. Only two sentences dealt with the Samarra ‘battle’:
“Last night, the Americans claimed they had killed 46 Iraqis who were involved in a series of ambushes on US convoys in the the city of Samarra. Eighteen Iraqi fighters and five US soldiers were also injured.”
The story used only US sources in spite of the fact that since 30/11/03 there were other versions of events available, especially from inhabitants of Samarra, yet these were not used. On page 24 of the same edition, it had this to say on the events in Samarra:
“US soldiers also repelled a series of co-ordinated attacks by insurgents, killing 46 Iraqis in Samarra last night, according to the US military…. During the attacks in Samarra, US troops from the 4th Infantry Division killed 46 Iraqis, captured eight and injured 18 after the rebels attempted to besiege its convoys. A number of the attackers were reportedly wearing the uniform of the Fedayeen, a militia formed by Saddam when he was in power. A US military spokesman said: “In all the clashes, coalition firepower overwhelmed the attackers, resulting in significant losses.””
Tuesday’s edition of the Independent (02/12/03) carried a story on page 2 headed “Iraqis attack US accounts of casualty rates” The story had a number of accounts from people who had witnessed the events. All contradicted the US account of events. Quoting a local inhabitant, the story referred to “tha’ar – revenge” killings and ended with:
“This has been described, in the clichés of journalism, as the cycles of violence. And the wheel is rotating with ever-increasing speed.”
The notion that what is happening in Iraq is part of some ‘cycle of violence’ is in itself spurious and misleading for what it does is embed events not in resistance to USUK occupation but to the ‘customs’ of the locals.
Wednesday’s edition (03/12/03) carried no stories at all on Samarra.
Thursday (04/12/03) carried one story on page 2 headed “US under pressure to back claims over Iraq fire-fight”. The body of the story contained the following:
“The question is whether the US and the occupation authorities have misled the media.”
The question was not answered, at least not by the Independent this in spite of the fact that the US account had been torn to shreds. The piece ends by quoting Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt who said:
“We have no reason to believe that those were inaccurate figures.”
By Friday however, it was clear that the US account was a pack of lies. Stories on pages 2 and 3 included accounts by US soldiers including two from Websites (http://www.hackworth.com and http://www.sftt.org) that contradicted the US version. The Independent’s story also said:
“Most newspapers and media organisations have been forced to retract initial reports that relied on the United States’ claim about the number killed.’
The story on page 3 was actually a reprint of a story from one of the Websites under the heading: “Samarra: soldier’s email devastates Pentagon’s account”.
In the piece I wrote on the same day (05/12/03) I asked why the Independent had not also carried a retraction of its Monday story? The response was that the Independent had always referred to the “US…claim” and hence had no need to print a retraction. Yet until Friday, the overall coverage of the events in Samarra whilst questioning the US version, also questioned eyewitness accounts as I showed in my story eg the Independent on 02/12/03 said of local eyewitnesses, “Some of their [Iraqi] accounts were clearly inaccurate”. And again on 04/12/03 the Independent referred to “conflicting” and “inconsistent” accounts of the ‘battle’ by local residents. If these had been the only accounts of events, it might be conceivable that they were all wrong but there were others:
But the main thrust of my story on 05/12/03 had concerned the Independent’s editorial, something the Independent’s journalist did not address, claiming instead:
“[T]he second point might strike you as a bit of a cop out. You asked why I chose not to defend comments made in the leader column of the paper: the reason is quite simply that i don’t see any point getting involved in an effort to defend someone else’s opinions. opinions are just that – some of them i’ll agree with, others i don’t. i certainly don’t feel obliged to defend everything that gets written in the paper. i think my time and efforts are better used writing news pieces and defending (where necessary) what i’ve written.”
Fair enough, but the point of my critique was not to attack individual journalists but the overall thrust of news coverage. My criticism started with why the Independent had chosen to use a mere ‘claim’ as part of its front page story on Monday without even using other versions and until it became impossible to deny the fact that the US version lacked any credibility, and had attempted wherever possible, to downplay Iraqi versions of events? And does the ‘average’ reader draw a distinction between ‘fact’ and claim when reading a story, especially a page one story? This is especially important when one considers that anybody in Iraq who opposes the occupation has already been labelled a ‘remnant’ or a ‘Ba’athist’, day after day since April.
The journalist who critiqued my essay made a point of saying that Monday’s story was not about Samarra but about ‘coalition’ losses. If this was so, then why was the Samarra story included? My initial critique of Monday’s story actually centered on the fact that “November: the cruellest month” did not include Iraqi deaths and injuries. Clearly Iraqis don’t feel pain the way Westerners do.
And further, does the reader of the Independent make the kind of separation between ‘news’ and the ‘paper’s editorial that the journalist quoted above does? I think not. Furthermore, by focusing on the role of the individual reporter ‘on the scene’, it sidesteps the issue of the role of editor and sub-editor in how the story finally appears. Context is everything and given the vast array of news sources available these days, there is no excuse for not having a variety of versions of events to draw on when putting a story together, especially given the fantasy that British journalism peddles — that of ‘objective’ journalism.
And just as important for the future, does this mean that we will see the Independent’s coverage of events in Iraq tempered with the fact that everything the US says about events there should be taken with a pinch of salt? After all, this is by no means the only event to have occurred in Iraq (or Afghanistan, or for that matter, the ‘war on terror’ that the Independent buys into) that the US has attempted to bend to its version of reality. And will we now see the Independent not carrying stories until they’ve been verified, especially front page stories, or at least qualifying US versions more forcefully before repeating them?
This raises the question of the context in which reportage occurs. For example, throughout its coverage, the Independent has constantly referred to Iraqi opposition to the occupation as “remnants”, “Ba’athists”, “pro-Saddam elements”, “terrorists” etc, all of which stem essentially from US or UK accounts. Coverage of events is one thing that at least the media could act responsibly on, deferring reporting until all the facts are available. Again, the journalist who responded to me, defended Monday’s coverage by saying:
“if you do have some experience of that [the difficulties of getting stories out] then i’d hope it would inform you as to some of the difficulties of operating in such circumstances and the genuine difficulties of getting hold of accurate information in time for daily deadlines.”
Again, this is part of the mythology of the ‘news’paper that deadlines come first, before it seems, attempting to verify the facts of an event. That this is not the journalist’s fault does not mean that he or she is by any means not a part of the process, far from it. The British press especially continues to perpetuate the myth of ‘objective’ journalism, that events can reported from the ‘outside’ as it were, as though the journalist carries no opinions or pre-conceived ideas that shape the context within which events are covered. Moreover, what of the role of editor/sub-editor in the process, the pivotal players in bringing a story to the public? Challenging the truth of an individual account is one thing, but challenging the worldview of the newspaper is something else again.
The mass media carries what I suppose can be called a ‘worldview’ through which events are filtered of which the ‘war on terror’ is a prime example. There’s not a single mass media outlet that doesn’t buy into the idea that the ‘war on terror’ is a ‘response’ to the acts of terrorists. Not a single story questions this order. Constant repetition of the phrase eventually brings the idea to life regardless of its basis in reality. To challenge this is to run the risk of seeming ‘unpatriotic’ or of denying the fact of bombings or the deaths of civilians.
Or take the phrase “suicide bomber”: In another war, far away in time, such acts would have been called something far different, perhaps ‘heroic’ or ‘self-sacrifice’, at worst perhaps foolhardy but never suicide. Context is all. By naming the act suicide, it conjures up something not quite rational, the implication being that people who do this are ‘unbalanced’ or to put it bluntly, nuts. It’s a short step to ‘fanatic’. Yet the Independent uses the term in all its descriptions of such acts. Questioning the fundamental premise of reporting the ‘news’ is vital if we are to understand causes, let alone the effects of events. I may be accused of ‘bias’ but at least you know where I stand. That the mass media claims to remove ‘bias’ from its reporting is merely a sleight of hand, for not only does it rest on the stories it chooses to report, it also rests on an entire universe of assumptions about the way the world works.